I distinctly remember my first panic attack.
It was the summer after my senior year of high school. I was back at the summer camp I had gone to all through high school except now I was a counselor. At staff training, we had the option of getting certified to be a life guard for the summer. It wasn’t required, but something in me felt like I had to be certified to be a lifeguard if I was going to be taken seriously as a counselor.
Did I have to do it? No. Did I judge the other counselors who opted out? No. But did I lay sleepless with a tight chest and constricted throat the night before my life guard test, panicking about whether I would pass the next morning? Yes. Did I rip myself to shreds when I realized swimming wasn’t my strong suit, and I actually might fail the test? Yes. Was I terrified of failing? Yes. Did I realize it was probably an irrational fear, since I could keep my job and no one would care if I failed and there were plenty of other life guards? Somewhere in my brain, I did.
But that didn’t stop me from laying there in my bunk, the heat stuffy and suffocating, my breath wheezing, my throat slowly tightening, the weight of an invisible anvil on my chest. I didn’t know what was wrong, and I felt maybe I could just breathe deep and calm down. I barely slept that night, and oddly enough, I never thought to ask anyone about the pain I experienced that night. By morning, it was gone, though I was exhausted.
Over the next few years, similar situations occurred. It mostly revolved around big decisions, such as traveling abroad, changing my major, or switching schools. Anytime I had to make a decision, I panicked.
Keep in mind, I grew up a Christian. I grew up learning God would guide me in all things, He’d be present, and I could never loose His love. While I knew it in my heart, I was living as if my decisions could make or break the rest of my life. I was living like there was a magic, golden path that led to my ultimate peace and happiness, and if I strayed from that path, if I failed, if I didn’t succeed at everything, I was completely screwed. Every unhappy and hard thing that happened was proof I made the wrong decision. In my head, I knew I was fulfilled in God. But in my heart, I lived as if everything depended on me making all the right and best decisions.
Fast forward to when I had my kids: my anxiety hit an all-time high and was more constant than ever. It hit a fever pitch after Gavin was born because he was a terrible sleeper, and the lack of sleep was pushing me over the edge.
I curbed the anxiety with running, working out, eating well, and spending time in prayer, where I journaled my thoughts and talked to God. While these things kept the anxiety at bay, I recently noticed I was slipping back into the pit of panic again. I couldn’t figure out why. I read back over my most recent journal entries, and I finally noticed a pattern.
Perfection. I hate admitting it, but that’s what I’ve been aiming for without even realizing it. I would never outright say I’ve been trying to be perfect. But I don’t have to. The way I have been living says enough.
I have been living for a very long time as if perfection in every area will make me happy and finally anxiety-free. And I don’t mean perfect like manicured nails, perfect hair, and a rocking body. I mean having perfect friendships: being completely available to my friends, making them happy, and never disappointing a soul. I mean having a perfect marriage: never fighting and having a husband who reads my mind and who “gets” me all the time. I mean giving my kids having the perfect childhood: the right memories, the right friends, the right schedules of play dates and sports. I mean having the perfect family: as a Christian family, shouldn’t we have some adopted kids? Or simply just more kids? Isn’t just having two kind of easy, kind of simple? Don’t we need more chaos, fuller days, proof we are working hard enough at this life?
It was a tough thing to realize about myself. I never realized I struggled so much with this. If I could just stop disappointing people, if I could just keep my mouth shut, if I could just always make the right decisions, then maybe I would never miss out on anything and this ball of anxiety in my heart would go away. But it only got worse. I have been seeking my wholeness in a perfect life, not in the perfect Christ. I was a people pleaser, not a God pleaser.
Suddenly, the scriptures that talked about God wanting us to have peace, joy, and an easy yoke to bear made sense. God is the one who changes my heart and takes away the anxiety: not the culmination of a perfectly manicured life. God is the one who replaces my panic with peace: not my perfectly balanced schedule or my completely pleased husband and kids. God is the one who spares me from having to place my hope in the things I do. He is my hope, whether I’m a hot mess or not. He does the heavy lifting.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you a heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26
I always saw these verses referring back to when I became a Christian. I was giving up my old heart and gaining a new one in faith. But I see now God continually does this. He takes my heart, hard with the knots of anxiety, and replaces it for a heart of peace in Him alone. Not my perfect friendships, marriage, kids, circumstances. I can be a hot mess in any aspect of life, but I don’t have to let it weigh me down because my hope is not in those things. I can still be free in Christ, free from constant guilt weighing me down, and free from others’ expectations.
If you continue to read those verses in Ezekiel, they go on to say that He will…
…put His spirit in me
…move me to follow Him
…save me from uncleanness
…make me fruitful (fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control)
…spare me from a famine of the soul
…hate sin, love goodness
…make me like the Garden of Eden
.…rebuild my ruins
I will disappoint people. I will make wrong choices. I will miss out. I will loose friends. I will fail. I will make mistakes with my kids. I will have terrible days. But I am loved and free and whole in Christ. I can trust Him and the place He has led me to. I can trust He will continue to mold me in to what He wants. He saves me, cleans me, spares me, makes me hate sin, and rebuilds my life day by day. I just have to let Him.
He put His spirit in me, and I can trust He moves me to follow Him. And if I’m on His path, that means really, I’m never really missing out at all.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 2 corinthians 4:16
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58